How Eddie Jones helped mastermind South Africa’s victory over England in 2007 Rugby World Cup final

This Saturday, Jones will take his seats in the stands in Yokohama for a World Cup final against the country he helped to glory. Yet the England side he has taken there bears an unmistakeable South African influence

Jonathan Liew
Tokyo
Wednesday 30 October 2019 12:34
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Eddie Jones strikes back at Gatland's criticism ahead of World Cup final

Eddie Jones had been planning for the 2007 Rugby World Cup as soon as the previous one was over. From the moment his Australia side were agonisingly beaten by Jonny Wilkinson’s drop goal in Sydney in 2003, he began plotting a strategy for the next tournament in France. Alas, with a few weeks to go, it’s fair to say things weren’t going to plan.

Jones’s career had hit rock bottom. Having been sacked as Wallabies coach in 2005 after a run of eight defeats in nine games, he had just endured a disastrous season with Queensland Reds, finishing bottom of the Super 14. His final game in charge, against the Bulls, had ended in a humiliating 92-3 defeat. Not only was he out of a job, but his love of the game had run dry. That was the point at which he got a phone call from an old sparring partner called Jake White.

White was the coach of South Africa, and though he had his differences with Jones in the past, he also remembered one meeting in particular. It was a couple of years earlier, ahead of South Africa’s game against Australia at Brisbane. Jones wasn’t going to spill any secrets on his former Wallabies charges, but over coffee he did offer one piece of advice. He warned White that the pitch at the Suncorp Stadium was particularly quick, and would suit Australia’s running game.

An incredulous White argued that a pitch was a pitch. As it turned out, Australia ran rings around the Springboks in a lightning 49-0 thumping. White realised at that moment that Jones was the sort of coach who could bring a unique perspective. Now, with just a few weeks to go until the World Cup, he made his move. He called Jones and invited him to spend a week watching some Springbok training sessions, and offering his thoughts.

Captain John Smit remembered that first training session, at Bishops School in Cape Town, extremely well. Jones was watching from the sidelines, and afterwards Smit asked him what he thought. To Smit’s shock, Jones rated the session “maybe four out of 10”. “Quite honestly,” Smit later said, I thought we had shot the lights out. He was quite honest about his assessment, but he said it in a nice way, and gave you ways to fix it.”

White didn’t take much convincing. “In that week, I saw how much value Eddie added,” White says in Mike Colman’s book ‘Eddie Jones: Rugby Maverick’. “He took existing ideas and put a fresh spin on them.” Jones was due to join Saracens in the autumn of 2007, but White asked if he would consider staying on for the World Cup as a consultant. Jones’s reply was tart and to the point: “Can you turn silver into gold, mate?” He wanted to know, above all, if the talented Springboks genuinely believed they were potential world champions.

Jones’s appointment did not meet with universal favour. There was a firestorm of criticism in Jones’s native Australia, where his dalliance with the enemy was seen as borderline treasonous. John O’Neill, chief executive of the Australian Rugby Union, was particularly scathing, accusing Jones of selling out to “the highest bidder”. Naturally, Jones retorted in kind, pointing out that as chief executive of Australian soccer, O’Neill had broken the bank to hire the Dutchman Guus Hiddink.

The South African Rugby Union, meanwhile, was uneasy about the idea of a foreign coach working with the team. Eventually, they sanctioned the move and allowed Jones to travel, on one condition: that he would not be an official member of the touring party, and thus would not be issued with a team blazer.

And so Jones set to work. His presence proved an instant hit with the players, who were impressed not only with his knowledge but with the way he effortlessly eased the pressure on White, their relatively inexperienced head coach. “We got the fun-loving Eddie,” says winger Bryan Habana. “He didn’t have to speak in a press conference, or to administrators. He didn’t come in and take charge. He just gave us little nuggets of wisdom, an insight into how outsiders saw us. He has an incredible rugby brain. His nuances are some of the best I’ve ever seen.”

Jones first got to work on the Springbok backs, showing them videos of his Brumbies and Wallabies teams, explaining where and how to find space. Post-match beers, during which Jones would kick back, debrief the game and share some of his wisdom, became a highlight of the week. As South Africa sailed through the group phase, smashing defending champions England along the way, it didn’t escape anybody’s notice that his former side, Australia, had been knocked out in the last eight.

Asked by reporters to explain the factors behind the Wallabies’ shock defeat, White replied: “He’s standing in our dressing room downstairs.”

As the week of the final approached, an anxious White sought out Jones for guidance. Jones, using his experience of four years earlier, told White that the players needed to hear his voice. “They draw confidence from what you say,” he said. He reminded White that all the preparations had already been done, that everyone knew their roles and that remarkably there were no injuries. His advice? “Stop worrying.”

Jake White with Eddie Jones

Well, we all know what happened next. In what Smit would later describe as “the worst game of rugby he’s ever played”, South Africa beat England 15-6 to claim the World Cup for the second time. After the victorious players had collected their medals, White stepped aside to usher Jones forward to receive his medal first. It was a recognition of the small but immeasurable contribution Jones had made to their winning campaign.

There is a counter-view out there, of course. There are those who argue that Jones’s role in that tournament has been grossly overplayed with hindsight. That the bulk of the hard yards had been done in the years leading up to the World Cup. That it was the players who ultimately deserve the credit, abetted by a favourable draw that pitted them against Fiji, Argentina and a limited England in the final.

It is a view espoused, curiously enough, by Jones himself. “The team was together four years,” he would later argue. “I was with them for 13 weeks. The systems were in place. All I did was paint over the cracks.” The players, however, demur. Bakkies Botha believes he played “a bigger part than a lot of people think”. And it is some indication of how highly Jones was valued within the Springbok camp that, as he took his leave and flew to Japan the day after the final, the players hatched a touching plan.

SARU were still adamant that Jones was not eligible for an official team blazer. A few weeks afterwards, however, Jones walked into the office at Saracens to be greeted by an enormous parcel. On opening it, he discovered Habana’s World Cup blazer, which he had framed and sent to Jones in recognition of the debt they all owed him. “Because I really valued the input Eddie had, I gave him my blazer,” Habana says now. “I hope it’s hanging somewhere in his house. He’s a good man.”

Jones was given a rain jacket ... but no blazer

This Saturday, Jones will take his seats in the stands in Yokohama for a World Cup final against South Africa. The England side he has taken there bears an unmistakeable South African influence, a product largely of the Saracens connection established by Jones himself, as well the likes of Brendan Venter, Smit and Schalk Brits: a rugged physicality, an intricate and ruthlessly-drilled set piece game, an emphasis on defence and territory and reliable ball. The 2007 Springboks may owe Jones. But Jones owes a great deal to them too.

Of course, all of this might easily have never come to pass. Had South Africa’s new technical advisor not abruptly left to take a job with the Stormers in Western Province on the eve of the 2007 World Cup, there might not have been a vacancy for White to fill at all. The technical advisor? Rassie Erasmus, who will face Jones in Saturday’s final as South Africa’s coach.

It’s funny how fate works out sometimes.

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